The First Amendment ethos guarantees citizens the right to participate in their democracy without fear of physical retribution. If there is any one foundational right in America, this is it -- it is the right that so many of us, fleeing from oppressive societies/regimes, originally came to this country specifically seeking. But as my new syndicated newspaper column shows, that First Amendment right is now being threatened by, of all things, the Second Amendment.
The rise of gun-toting protesters at congressional and presidential town hall meetings has put citizens' right to bear arms in direct conflict with citizens right to attend public political meetings without fear of physical retribution. Indeed, in bringing loaded weapons -- as opposed to a sign portraying a gun, for instance -- to these meetings, protesters are quite deliberately aiming to intimidate others. They are, in effect, asserting that their Second Amendment rights to bear arms should come before everyone else's First Amendment rights.
Having lived in Montana and now living in Colorado, and having reported extensively on the Minuteman movement for my most recent book, I have a solid firsthand sense of gun culture. And I sincerely believe this isn't about the old debates about gun ownership. You can be adamantly for the right to bear arms, and also believe that it's unacceptable to brandish loaded weapons at public political meetings.
So, how to resolve the constitutional conflict? Well first, I'd suggest remembering that the sequence of the Bill of Rights isn't random. The First Amendment came before the Second Amendment because our Founders clearly believed it is the most sacred principle in a democracy.
Practically, that means making public political meetings gun-free zones, just like stadiums and schools. In doing that, we can circumvent the tired old debate about gun ownership rights and simply protect everyone's right to engage in their democracy free of fear.
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